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Learn to code in a day

Intensive coding workshops for complete beginners are becoming more and more popular. Katie Moffat reports on her experience at Decoded, in which she learned the basics of HTML, CSS and JavaScript in just one day

Coding is officially cool. Once considered by the general population to be a dark art performed by introvert geeks, programming has undeniably been through a transformation over the last few years. 

It started with the collective realisation that coding has given individuals like Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg an avenue to monumental wealth, not to mention transforming the fabric of the internet, and our lives, in the process. Gradually, non-coders woke up to what being able to code allowed you to do and, for many outsiders like me, the ability to code always seemed like the door to a world of possibility.

Websites and companies like General Assembly and Code Academy sprung up to help feed the demand for those wanting to learn how to code. In 2011, Kathryn Parsons, Steve Henry, Alasdair Blackwell and Richard Peters founded Decoded, which claims to offer ‘digital enlightenment’ and to teach anyone, whatever their background, to learn how to code in a day. 

Like many people, I wondered if it was truly possible to teach someone to code in only one day. Can you really learn something so complicated to any useful degree, in such a short space of time? I wanted to find out. And so, armed with a very basic understanding of web technologies and a feeling that they’d have their work cut out for them, I went along to experience one of their ‘code in a day’ workshops.  

The advertising industry background of the founders is apparent from the moment you step through the doors of their achingly cool offices in Shoreditch in London. We could just as easily be in an agency with its open spaces, huge windows and rows of MacBook Airs. The other attendees are from mixed backgrounds albeit with a marketing and creative slant and it was refreshing that in a traditionally male dominated industry, there's a fairly even male/female split.

Alasdair Blackwell and head of product John Ridpath are our hosts for the day and after coffee and introductions, they launch into a fascinating potted history of web technologies. From HTML, through CSS, JavaScript, PHP, libraries, APIs, mobile and web apps, they have an enthusiastic delivery style and a clear joy for the subject. What is perhaps more unexpected, but fascinating nonetheless, is Alasdair’s impassioned support for the open web. His favourite phrase is ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, which he uses frequently to give kudos to the huge pool of talented coders who freely share their code for mutual benefit.  It's this culture of collaboration that can make the web such a positive place in an era when, he contends, “everybody wants to own everything”.

Great ambitions

But it’s on to the practical stuff and Alasdair announces that we're going to build ‘a web app that tracks a user’s location and allows them to check in when they reach a target destination’.  With my own skills in mind this seemed a tad ambitious but Alasdair smoothed away any panicked looks with the reassurance that they’d walk us step-by-step through the whole process.

First, we had to decide what we wanted our app to do, I decided that mine, rather shallowly, would give the user a discount voucher if they checked in at a particular shoe shop. We built the web page using HTML, adding features such as a field for the user to enter their name and then we played with the CSS to improve what was, it has to be said, a fairly ugly looking thing. After a break for lunch we moved on to JavaScript and making the app actually work. 

Alasdair and John talked us through the basics of programming languages, introducing the notion of conditional statements and getting the group to work out what functions, behaviour and logic our app would need. By this point my brain was starting to hurt but what was also becoming clear was the immense satisfaction from everyone in the room when the app responded in the way it was supposed to. Coos of delight erupted from all around the room as the form displayed the required message when a user checked-in. It reminded me of the sheer joy you see in very young children when they learn a new skill. 

On the topic of children, schools are the next target for Decoded. Alasdair was clear that the term so often used to describe children as being ‘digital natives’ in reality usually translates to them being able to press a button on an iPad, “In many ways those of us in our 30s and 40s have a better understanding of the computers because we come from an era of the BBC Micro and ZX Spectrum where you had to work hard to make it do what you wanted it to do.

“We live in an age where so much is possible but we need to teach children how to get underneath the hood of the computer and really understand how it works”. To this end, Decoded have applied to the Mayor of London’s office for a grant to take Decoded into London primary schools, with the plan being to train up a group of ‘evangelists’ who can then help schools to get children coding. 

Equally as passionate about this topic is Zak Bassey, one of the Decoded facilitators who describes himself as an artist first and a coder second. Decoded’s facilitators, who are all independent, come from a huge range of different backgrounds but all of them have a strong desire to pass on their knowledge to others.

Susan Mulcahy who was present on the day of my workshop, is studying for a PhD in the physiological impact of traumatic brain injury following the injury. She uses MATLAB to help process the data from her research and also lectures in MATLAB at Imperial. She explains that she saw an article about Decoded and thought, “I’d love to be a part of that, I love the fact that coding concepts can place logical structure on our illogical lives. Code can teach us so much about life.” 

Building bridges

Zak is also clear about the benefits of learning to code even if the vast majority of workshop attendees never go on to become a coder, “It’s about saying look we’re just ordinary people and look what’s possible if you learn a bit about this stuff.”  Zak explained that a large part of what Decoded do is help people to stop feeling intimidated by coding, “You don’t have to know it all, our mission is to provide a bridge between the coder and the creative or marketing person. I always use the analogy of the film industry, you have directors, lighting technicians, camera operators, editors and so on, you might never be able to do their job but it can be useful if you have to work with those people, to understand what each of their jobs entails and how all the jobs fit together.”  This was a opinion echoed throughout the day by several of the people on the workshop, they wanted to have a better understanding of so that they could go back to the office and have more informed conversations with developers. 

Back to the workshop and we’d reached the part where we needed to add some geolocation functionality to our app. Once again Alasdair and John were keen to demonstrate the vast resource available in relation to coding so rather than telling us how to do it, we were dispatched to find the solution ourselves using Google. This approach is brilliant for two reasons. First, it’s a simple way to make you feel that you are genuinely involved in the process of building the app. Second, it provides a clear demonstration that coding is essentially a creative process, that there are often multiple ways to achieve the same aim and, as a result, you shouldn’t be put off by trying different things until you find a solution that works.  

Job done and the coos of delight almost turned to cheers as people refreshed their pages to find that the app was asking them to check-in. It seemed impossible to believe that we’d started only a few hours ago.

So did I walk out of Decoded having learned how to code? Well I’d say a qualified 'yes'. A few days on from the workshop and my head is already fuzzy on the detail, particularly in relation to JavaScript functions. It’s not something that comes particularly easily to me and I’m clearly never going to be a developer, but it has undoubtedly given me a solid understanding of the key technologies and the connection between them. It’s also made me want to keep learning and perhaps more crucially, that it’s even a possibility that I am capable of learning more. In that way I’d say that I’ve certainly experienced ‘digital enlightenment’.

To learn more about Decoded’s courses or becoming a facilitator, visit decoded.co.

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